S 4 E13

April 28th, 2021

EPISODE 13: The Science and Practice of Transforming Organizational Systems for More Equity

Increasingly, equity is finding its way into conversations, organizations, and acronyms across the world. But there’s a lot of noise, and many misconceptions, about what equity means and how it applies to organizations. As a result, many business leaders aren’t quite sure how to define, develop, or deploy the “E” in DE&I. In Season 4’s final episode, our panel helps you reduce some of the noise by following the science. NLI’s Janet Stovall, Senior Client Advisor, is joined by Dr. Michaela Simpson, Senior Researcher, and Dr. Dominic Packer, Professor of Psychology, Lehigh University. Together they provide science-informed, applicable guidance to help solve systemic inequity and increase equity.

Episode Transcript


[00:00:06] GB: Increasingly, equity is finding its way into conversations, organizations and acronyms across the world. But there’s a lot of noise and many misconceptions about what equity means and how it applies to organizations. As a result, many business leaders aren’t quite sure how to define, develop, or deploy the E in DE&I. At NLI, we want to help you reduce some of the noise by following the science. That’s why we’ve been exploring the concept of equity for the past few weeks. In this episode, the finale of Your Brain at Work’s fourth season, we bring our discussion of equity to a close, but more of a pause than a cessation. In it, our panel explores the science of power, group identity, cooperation, dissent, and influence. They unpack definitions and build frameworks that can help leaders both understand and create equity in their organizations. And they explore strategies to move the conversation about equity from a perceived zero-sum game to a win-win reality.

I’m Gabriel Berizen, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw episodes from a weekly webinar series that NLI has been hosting every Friday. This week, our panel consists of NLI’s Janet Stovall, Senior Client Advisor; Dr. Michaela Simpson, Senior Researcher at NLI; and Dr. Dominic Packer, professor of psychology at Lehigh University. Enjoy.


[00:01:34] JS: Hello. I’m looking forward to this.

[00:01:36] GB: I’m looking forward to hearing all three of you. I wanted to give you some context around who we are and what we do here at the NeuroLeadership Institute. We were founded over two decades ago, working all across the world and partnering with over half of the Fortune 100, and many of the Fortune 500. We start with research and science and anchor on that to help work with our clients. We asked organizations, “What are your biggest challenges?” We continue to do this. And what consistently came up was how to mitigate bias. Then it evolved to inclusion, speaking up. And that’s moved us into our DE&I work. And now we have eight published journals of research on the subject. In NLI’s existence, we found that there’s a gap between the science and what organizations actually do. And we’re working to close that gap. And the science is what brings us here today for allyship and equity. Today is the final chapter of our three part series on the topic. And today we examine how we can fight systemic inequity by driving change in cyber organizations. So with that, I’m going to hand over to you, Janet, are you good to go?

[00:02:35] JS: I’m good to go. Let’s get started. In part one of the allyship series. So in part one, we defined allyship and we defined equity. And then in part two, we dug down a little bit deeper into the neuroscience of how you actually increase equity. Well, today, which is the final chapter of this series, we’re going to take on the system itself, and we’re going to talk about the science and practice of transforming organizational systems for more equity. We’re going to frame our discussion today around the big question. The big question we’re going to look at today is how can allies drive change to make systems more equitable? But before we start trying to answer that big question, we need to define two key terms that are often conflated and often confused; systematic and systemic.

Okay, so both systematic and systemic are adjectives based on the word system. Systematic means having, showing or involving a system, method or a plan, and another word for systematic is methodical. So if you do something systematically, you have a method to your madness, you have a plan in place, you have a strategy, you’re not doing things randomly, you’re organized and structured in some way. And when it comes to inequity, we often think of things being systematically inequitable. And those are the laws, laws like the southern black codes, Plessy versus Ferguson, apartheid, things that mandated second class citizenship, for example, for black people, or the English common law that stated the very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection she performs everything. That used to be a law. And then orders, executive order 9666, which cleared the way for the incarceration of the Japanese Americans during World War Two. For the most part, those laws no longer exist.

Systemic, however, describes something like an illness or social problem that affects every part of an entire system. And systemic inequity is very much present today, right here, right now. Systemic inequity is a legacy of systematic inequity. Systemic inequity is less obvious, but much more insidious. Systemic inequity is embedded into the very institutions and organizations of society. It influences laws, rules and procedures, and worst of all, it perpetuates inequity. Typically in ways that most of us don’t even see.

In business, systematic inequity would be an employer, for example, in gross violation of the law, refusing to interview a woman or a person of color simply because they were a woman or a person of color. That would get people fired because that will get companies fine. But systemic inequity shows up in the workplace as gaps in pay and promotion based on race or gender. Women of people of color disproportionately hit back Coronavirus related job loss. If we confuse and conflate the two, we often can convince ourselves that one doesn’t exist. And that is dangerous.

Systemic inequity is hard to fix, because you can’t just fall your way out of it. But we’re here today to talk about what you can do, and how allyship can play a role. How allies influence others? How allies work together by bridging gaps and leveraging collective strength, and how allies challenge the status quo. And as always, we’re going to follow the science to do it.

So let’s start with influence. Influence means having an effect on a character, the development or behavior of someone or something. And when we think about it, we usually think about people, about individuals, even if it’s a lot of people, but transformative influence is much bigger. It’s about having an effect on an entire system. It’s about addressing and reducing inequity. And that requires slightly different features.

First, it’s not just one person affecting one other person. It’s everyone affecting everyone else. Now, we all know the successful DEI initiatives start at the top with executive buy-in. But that’s also where they stop if the engagement isn’t pushed down the org chart to the frontline, and then back up to keep everybody engaged and accountable. Transformative influence is also informed. It acknowledges and it seeks to address the very real existence of systemic inequity. It does not settle for one-off solutions. And finally, transformative influence is driven by generative interactions. What are those?

Well in allies, we talk about the cognitive process of generation. We suggest in our training, and as Gabe did in the very beginning, that you ought to take notes, because the process of translating what you hear through your own brain and through your own words into your own words, helps you hold on to that information better. It helps you learn better, because your brain creates or generates new connections to the information. Well, the same principle applies to interactions between people and their individual brains. Generative interactions create new things, new knowledge, new insights, new capabilities to handle new complexities. And that’s exactly what you need for systemic change. But as Bernstein, Bulger and Salipante suggest, generative interactions require inclusion, and that means we have to combat some exclusionary impulses. Unmitigated unconscious bias and human threat reward instincts can make us exclude people unintentionally.

Well, the theory of generative interactions posits that we must intentionally overcome those instincts with adaptive cognitive processing and skill or habit formation, which is, of course, exactly what NLI sees in SCARF models and the solutions we built around them are designed to do. And it’s exactly the kind of interaction that allies need to do. The generative interaction theory also suggests that systemic change operates on systemic organizational frameworks, frameworks that include a valued and shared purpose, diverse teams working overtime, not just one-off task forces, equity of voice and standing on those teams, and psychological safety.

[00:09:00] MS: When things are not clear to people, then transparency against that kind of same thing.

[00:09:07] DP: Learning that intent is irrelevant. Yeah.

[00:09:08] MS: Yeah, loss of interest, motivation and leadership. That’s really key. Oh, a huge one, unawareness that bias exists.

[00:09:16] JS: That’s one of the reasons I wanted to explain that, because I think that it’s very easy to ignore the fact that systemic inequity exists because the laws are no longer on the books. So we say we’re past that, but we’re not, because those laws didn’t just go away. They put things in place that are perpetuated.

[00:09:34] MS: Right? Yeah. And then we’re talking about more these implicit, right? These implicit beliefs, these implicit behavior. So you can’t always like call it out. It’s not somebody coming to work and drawing a swastika somewhere. It’s not these blatant actions. And so when things are more implicit, and you’re not sure, and it’s kind of ambiguous, and then it feels off, but you can’t say for sure, and then some people say, “Well, if it’s not explicit and definitive, then it’s not what you’re saying it is.”

[00:10:01] JS: But you can see explicit differences. And it’s very easy if you ignore the existence of systemic inequity and you see explicit differences. When you start doing what people are inclined to do is to blame those things on something else. And that’s when we start getting stereotyping those things that somebody is somehow lesser than or no. It’s not bad. It’s that the system is screwed up.

[00:10:26] DP: Right. I love that distinction. And it also highlights I think that for the systemic it can, to some extent, be in people’s minds, right? It could human biases and stereotypes, people unintentionally often apply without realizing. But it could also be something embedded in the way things work around here that nobody’s even thought of the downstream consequences of. Just a concrete example, right? If a company only ever really tries to recruit a certain type of employee from top business schools, you’re then putting the fate of your diversity of your workforce in the practices of those business schools, which may not actually be providing a terribly diverse pool. Nobody set out to end up with equitable outcomes from that. But that’s something that’s just built into the way we do things that can produce inequitable outcomes.

[00:11:15] MS: And that’s even a way of like broadening. We’re just going to the topic of diversity and inclusion. We tend to often think in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, things like that. But going back to the academic setting, or business school, professional school setting, diversity for them can mean, “Oh, we’re going to consider people and actually admit people who are not from Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Northwest or –

[00:11:40] JS: Let’s take HBCU. Let’s try that.

[00:11:43] MS: Yeah. Oh wow! Well, I don’t know if they’ve gotten up. Yeah, exactly.

[00:11:47] JS: Exactly. Women’s schools, I mean, take a pick. Let’s move on to sort of the next section. And I’m going to – And we’ve talked about influence now. So how do we actually expand that influence? So Dominic, as David mentioned in the introduction, you got a great book coming out, and you spend your time studying what makes people speak out? Or maybe not speak out? Tell us a little bit about what you’ve learned that drives that? What are the big drivers in that behavior?

[00:12:13] DP: Yeah, thank you, Janet. So I think I’ll start by jumping off from the point of influence. One of the things we study as social psychologists and social neuroscientists is one of the reasons that people are influenced by others. And then if you understand that, you have a handle on what levers do you then have to try to influence others? And the way I think about influence in this context is that what you’re trying to do is understand why do people follow norms? And in this case, we were trying to attend to norms that are not achieving the larger goals that we would like, right? We want a more inclusive workforce or a more inclusive organization. And yet, there’s some normative patterns in how we behave that are causing us to not meet that aspiration.

And fundamentally, there are three reasons why people conform to norms. One is something that we’re all really attuned to, especially as teenagers, right? It’s peer pressure. Psychologists call it normative influence. It’s the sense that I have to go along with it, because it’s expected. And if I don’t, it’s sort of in violation of what people want, and I’ll be ostracized or disliked or I won’t get promoted. And that is a powerful driver. And often it can cause people to do things they don’t really agree with, but the kind of thing they have to.

Or probably actually more common form of influence is called informational influence. And this is just when we look to others to help us figure out what’s appropriate, or what makes sense, what’s reasonable to do in this kind of environment? This is really strong when people join a company, right? It’s a new workplace. You’re not familiar with how things are done exactly around here. And you’re going to be looking at what everyone else is doing. Kind of pick up the pattern so that you fit in. And it’s not because you’re necessarily worried about being mocked if you didn’t. It’s just an honest attempt to try to understand what do we do around here.

And then third and I think most importantly in this context form of influence is identity-driven. That is, we’re trying to emulate or exemplify our exhibit to the world a particular part of our identity by conforming to a set of norms. And so if I work for a company and I want to be a good employee, I want to be seen that way and I want to feel that way myself. The way in which I do that is by being one of us, by exemplifying the kind of behaviors that we do around here.

And I think this is both very powerful, because it’s a way in which you can extend influence. If you want to change norms, you can play two identities. What you’re really trying to do is change people’s understanding of who we are and how we behave and what is the right thing for us to do. But at the same time, identity-driven influence is bounded. You can think about this like in our current political context, especially in United States, but we see it in countries around the world, say following norms around COVID-19. Right? Who’s wearing a mask versus who’s not wearing a mask? Who’s distancing versus who’s refusing to distance?

What we can see is those norms that become attached to identities, right? So we Have conservatives on the one hand following one set of norms and liberals on the other hand. This is particularly true in the United States, following another set of norms, and they’re in opposition to each other. The same thing can play out I think in organizations. If an organization is trying to achieve systemic change, as Janet was talking about, that means the whole system, but people often don’t think of themselves necessarily are identified particularly strongly with the whole organization, right? They might identify with a team, or a division, or a particular work group within that organization. And they’re actually much more likely to sort of follow those group norms than organizational norms as a whole. And in some cases, those silos aren’t just silos, they’re actually oppositional silos. So that we’re not like those folks in marketing, right? They’ve got their thing, and we’re doing our thing. I think that’s a fundamental challenge for systemic change, but at least being attuned to it and aware of it can give us a handle on it. We need to be thinking about, first of all, what are the identities that people hold within our organization? And what do they understand the norms of those identities to be? If we’re trying to change things systemically, be thinking about, “Do people possess an overarching identity?” Do people feel identified with something larger than their team or their work group? And if so, what is that? And what are the norms there? And how do we help people understand? Not just what they might be doing day-to-day, but where we want to go? Not what are our norms today? But what are aspirational norms? What is the future in terms of the direction we want to go? So that’s how I think about influence.

[00:16:27] JS: How do you establish norms as writ large that will influence corporate leaders beyond the business case? How do you do that, I guess, systemically? What are those norms that you can do that then you are bridging the gaps? And how do you make it like an enterprise norm as opposed to that’s just not the business case?

[00:16:45] DP: It’s not specific to a particular business, but it’s an industry-wide kind of thing? I mean, that’s a really great question. So there’re norms within groups. And then groups are embedded. Another way to think about it is they’re embedded in a structure themselves, which is itself a type of a group. So an industry can understand itself as a kind of group. And there’re norms there. That’s a really great question that I hadn’t given great thought to before.

I think, to some extent, industry, or companies within an industry put pressure on each other in the sense that if one organization or set of organizations develops a set of norms that are more appealing to their clients, or customer base, that’s going to improve their outcomes. If it’s more appealing to employees, they’re going to have a better time and an easier time selecting and recruiting people and then retaining them over time.

And so I think you see normative shifts sometimes with an industry do to those more slow kind of processes, but it’s as different organizations to try out different kinds of patterns, the ones that work, and the ones that are appealing to people are the ones that are going to stick. And other companies will be looking at that to say, “Well, how should we be behaving in ways that our clients want, our customers want, and our employees want as well.”

[00:17:56] MS: And you might be getting to what I was thinking in the way. I was reading that, because we often talk about making there’s a business case and then there’s the human case. And so often framing – I don’t know if that was the framing, but I was also thinking in that way of like leaders will often maybe create change, because it’s good for business. And often we find that diversity and inclusion are good for business, but like, what about that human case? How do we get leaders to recognize the human case? And does science show us anything of like how we can go about doing that? I know Jay Van Bavel has done things, generally, but in terms of how people make decisions from a pragmatic lens versus a moral lens. So you could possibly speak to that.

[00:18:35] DP: Absolutely. Yeah. So yeah, my colleague, Jay Van Bavel and I have done work over the years where you can get people to think about the same sort of decision or action in different ways. You can think about it morally. Like is this the right or the wrong thing to do? Or pragmatically? Is it sensible or rational? And people make different judgments depending on the lens that they’re thinking through. That itself is the norm, right? So within a company, or unit, or a work group, or a team, there can be norms that developed about how do we make decisions in this group? Right? Are we always thinking about the business case and what’s rational? What’s going to make the most money? Or we also, when we make big decisions, at least for part of the process, thinking about it in more moral or ethical terms? What’s the bigger picture here? What is the human case?

I often think when it comes to group identities, those two things really do mingle because people conform to norms, which is essential for change, right? You want people to adopt your new patterns, you new ways of behaving, when they identify with groups, and the groups that they identify with are ones that they are finding value in. They’re groups that they’re feeling that sense of human connection in. And at least over the long term, people don’t tend to resonate with or particularly want to identify with groups that are only ever about making as much money as possible and ignoring the human side, or inattentive to the ethical issues of things. That often rubs people the wrong way and is over time going to reduce their level of identification, and the less identified they are, the less cooperative they are, we know that they tend to be less productive. It tends to increase counterproductive work behaviors as they’re called, which can include everything from petty theft, to extensive sick leave when people are sick and so on.

If you’re not providing a context in which people feel that sense of human connection and that what we’re doing is a worthy cause, and is a good thing, and is consistent with our values. Over time, at least that’s going to reduce their identity and then have these negative effects, which ultimately will affect your bottom line, will affect that business case.

[00:20:33] JS: Let me come in on that sort of from as a communications person where I’ve had to deal with that issue. If you think about the motivation and the continuum between the business case, which is purely profit, and then the human case, or the smart thing to do, the profitable thing to do, versus the right thing to do. I always struggle because I’ve often said this, there was a point where people thought slavery was the right thing to do. So do we really want to depend on organizations changing based on that. So there’s a challenge. I think the middle split the space and where I think it has a stickiness is when companies call themselves on their own values. Those companies have some sort of a value statement. Most of them are not going to say even if they operate that way. They’re not going to say we are here only to make a profit. That’s the only thing we’re going to do. We don’t have any ethics. Nobody’s going to have that state. On the flip side, nobody’s going to have a statement of, “We don’t care about making money. We just want to do the right thing.” Usually, there’s something in the middle.

And I believe that as a communicator, one of the things that I often find myself doing is sticking people now. I’ll go [inaudible 00:21:38] and say, “Okay, now, you don’t have to do any of this stuff. You don’t have to do anything except make a profit. But what you’re not going to do is go out into the world and have this value statement. What you’re not going to do is print this on every piece of little paper we have hanging over the printers, or on our logo or on our webpage, you’re not going to say that in the world. And I’m not going to call you on it. And we’re not going to call you on it.”

So if we believe this, if you believe this, and if you want everybody to believe this, how then are we going to translate into what we do in the DEI space? So to me, I think that’s one of the ways that you can sort of bridge that divide. And as a communicator, afterwards, people do it all the time. Because I think that then you have a shared value system. As we said earlier in the thing of generative interactions, one of the systemic and organizational pieces that has to be there is a shared value system. And most companies already have it. We just have to make sure that we call ourselves on it and we call our leaders on it.


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[00:23:16] DP: That’s absolutely right. I think it’s leading us toward the next section of what we’re going to talk about a little bit because it’s under what conditions when people challenge the status quo. Very often what we find when people challenge the status quo is they’re doing exactly that. They’re saying, “Hey, we’re not living up to our values, right? We said we cared about these.” Or, “This isn’t our founding document. This is in the Constitution. This is something about who we are, is not being lived up to or abided by. And that’s a major problem.”

And what we find when we study people challenging the status quo is they’re often trying to, exactly as you’re doing, pinpoint where these discrepancies between what we say we want or say we are versus what we’re actually doing. And how do we narrow that discrepancy?

[00:23:58] JS: Somebody asked the question, “However. What do we do and is mostly performative?” They say GDI, but they only act on faith GDI.” I’m not sure. But they only act on profits only. They may not say it in their values. We are here for the profits, but they don’t act on it and just care about the profits.

Well, let’s face it, that’s often the case. And that’s why the business case for diversity, equity and conclusion came about, I believe, because we needed a common way to center on something that mattered. So the issue is when companies don’t really pursue diversity, equity and inclusion, and you said it’s only profits, because they haven’t figured out yet that is valuable. So when I’ve been in situations where I’ve had companies who I’ve had to deal with leaders, who I know, despite the value statement, are leaning more towards that business case, then I drew myself in a position to objectively show them why what they’re saying is true, because companies and people will throw those sorts of general statements out there where we believe that diversity is valuable because it leads innovation. It helps us connect with our customers. If you don’t have systems to tap into that and leverage the diversity, then no, it doesn’t do those things.

So sometimes when you face that very profit-driven motive and heart discussion for it, the next step is, “Okay, so what systems do we have to make it profitable?” If that’s all you’re interested in, and if you’re going to say you’re interested in diversity and inclusion only for the profit motive? How are we converting that to profit? And sometimes that’s where you can take the argument to get it to the next step that I’ve noticed.

[00:25:32] MS: How do you address retaliation against employees when they call out the dissonance between organizational values and organizational behavior? And this is also going into our next topic of challenging the status quo, but we’re going to blend this. Those are some of the things we’re going to talk about in the next section of when you challenge the status quo, part of that is who’s the messenger? Because often what we find – And this doesn’t mean that people should not call things out and speak up. But often what can happen is when people do speak up, if they’re from a particular group, or when we talk about allyship at NLI, we talk about people in advantaged positions and people in disadvantaged positions, knowing that that’s not fixed. It’s very contextual. But when people in disadvantaged position say in a workplace speak up, they can face retaliation, they can face backlash, and we have a lot of studies showing what happens. And we also see that play out in real life. Again, as I form that, I would then pose the question to you, Dominic and Janet, how would you address this question?

[00:26:31] DP: I mean, it’s exactly the right question, if we’re trying to foster organizations and groups where people can speak out, can offer divergent views, which, as Janet noted, is one of the fundamental benefits of having diversity in the first place, right? But you can’t take advantage of it. It can’t be a good thing for your organization, unless people can speak and be heard. Creating an environment where it’s welcoming and there’s psychological safety as opposed to its hostile and people fear being punished for it is essential.

And I think when it comes to reactions to divergent views, there’re two things to be attentive to one. Is the reaction within a hierarchy, and this is something that I think everyone worries about, which is how will my boss respond or their boss or is this going to attract negative attention from senior leadership? And it really is incumbent on leaders if they are trying to create those kinds of environments where people have voice to make sure that people understand that’s not going to happen. And that can take work, right? Because sometimes you will have people expressing things that you don’t agree with as a leader. And yet, you want other people to feel free in the future to express things. And so you’ve got to handle that respectfully. And you’ve got to create those environments where people feel safe.

But the other major piece of it is not how leaders respond, or managers or bosses. It’s how peers respond. That’s often just as powerful the reason that people don’t speak out. They worry that their peers around them are going to view it negatively for one reason or another. Perhaps it’s going to threaten what other people are doing. Perhaps it’s just going to be regarded as virtue signaling, “Oh, you’re just trying to make yourself look good again.” And that’s another thing to worry about in organizations is how are people’s peers reacting, and also to recognize for ourselves that we are often those peers? Right? So if one of your colleagues makes a suggestion that you think, “Well, that’s odd,” or “I don’t really agree with that,” be mindful about how you react to that, because other people are watching that and will shave their willingness to speak out in the future. If you welcomed diversity of views, you’re not going to hear a diversity of views, whether you’re the boss, or just appear and a colleague of other people,

[00:28:30] MS: Right. And that’s so important to highlight that it’s not just the top down, it’s also peer-to-peer. And that there’re some studies, we had a program called voice and speaking up. And one of the things we found that one of the reasons, and Dominic, you brought this up, that people will hesitate in speaking up or not speaking up. It’s fear of losing relationships. And that sense of relatedness and belonging, which kind of goes back to identity, right? We want to feel like we belong and that we’re safe and we’re part of a group and we identify with that group. And so everything is so integrated and interconnected.

[00:29:01] JS: And it’s also about a culture pivot. Really, innovative companies are not cultures of collaboration in the sense of consensus. Collaboration, yes, but a culture of consensus. They are cultures of collaborative, constructive conflict. I mean, because that’s what it takes. So if you build those kind of cultures, if you’re in a culture where nobody makes mistakes or you’re penalized if you make mistakes, not allowed to make mistakes, you’re not likely to speak up. How do you roll this up? That’s partially how you have to roll it up past the groups. You have to build a culture where people feel that it’s okay that speaking up and making a mistake drives innovation and drives you forward and it doesn’t stop you there and get you punished for it.

[00:29:46] DP: Just to add one more thing. So there’s a lot of research, which we might talk about more in a few minutes showing the dissent and expression of divergent views can be incredibly valuable and increases innovation and creativity. Groups often make better decisions when you get a multitude of voices, but there are studies which show the opposite. There are occasionally some research is done where shows that the more dissent there is in a team, and I’m thinking particularly paper, particular, they studied top leadership teams. And they found that the more dissent there was in these teams, the worse it was in terms of how well they got along, and also, ultimately, the profit margins of their companies.

But the key thing there was that they were dissenting about their core goals. There was no agreement on these senior leadership teams about what they were trying to do big picture. They didn’t agree on the mission. And if that’s not there, then disagreement actually is probably pretty destructive. Because we can’t even agree on what the foundation is. We don’t even have enough common ground here to have that constructive disagreement that Janet was talking about. And so I think that’s where the identity who we are really comes back into play. We need some common sense of who we are and what we’re trying to do to make disagreement productive, because then we can disagree about all the details of how we get there, and what policy changes we should be implementing or not, how our norms need to shift, all of those things. But it’s all in service of some common goal. We’re still on the same page fundamentally about who we are and what we’re trying to do.

[00:31:15] JS: Dominic, to your point, once we got this collaborative, we agree, we’re in this place, we’re allies. If we can get that sort of agreement on the values, and we’re going forward, so we’ve got collective strength now and collaborative power, we figured out how to make that actionable. What do we do next? I would argue that that’s the point at which you start really challenging the status quo, because that’s what’s necessary. So let’s talk about – Let’s move and talk about that. And so I’ll turn to you Michaela firs. Let’s start with you. So we have talked about already and we understand that there’s huge value and importance in challenging the status quo, that that’s what’s going to have to happen to make systems more equitable. But is it really that easy? You’re leaning into that a little bit? It’s not really that easy. So what are some of the challenges to challenging the status quo?

[00:32:07] MS: Right. So actually, I just realized, Janet, that we didn’t offer our definition of allyship. So I won’t want to go back to that to frame this. Because there are ways we can challenge the status quo. In this case, we’re talking about allies challenging the status quo. When we talk about allyship at NLI, we talk about, it’s when people in advantaged positions are aware of and use their advantaged position to actively support and include those in less advantaged positions. And again, I won’t go through the whole thing, but basically, we talk about advantage, and there are many different ways we can experience advantage, and we all do depending on context. It’s also we have multiple identities. And so there are certain situations when aspects of our identity where we have more advantage. And the point of like ally stepping in is that they have that advantage, that in that particular situation, they are not really losing anything. They don’t necessarily have to intervene. It’s not really directly involving them, but they’re nonetheless intervening or speaking up. And so this is how I’d like to frame allies in this context.

And so we think about the challenges that come with challenging the status quo, and there are many. That also means we do need to challenge the status quo to create change. But I’d like to focus on two things. It’s people’s adherence to the status quo, or the defense of the status quo. And we also need to consider who is the messenger. It’s really important to understand that it’s challenging for people to change their beliefs about a system, especially if they like, “This is the way we’ve always done it. It works.” They can be really wedded to that. It’s very threatening for them to think that, “Wait, you’re going to change the way things are?”

And at NLI, for those of you who know us, we talk a lot about threat reward. And we talk about how we have this urge or this motivation, right? It’s like it’s in us, inherent in us, to avoid threat, to offset threat, to minimize threat. And it’s stronger than our urge to maximize reward. We also want to maximize reward, but our urge to move away from threat is stronger. And in simpler terms, we say bad is stronger than good. And if we think about avoiding the threat, in very primal terms, it’s linked to survival. And it’s really important for us to be focused on that rather than moving toward a reward, which is nice, but we don’t really want to die. And so often I talk about you might be out on a trail. I live in California, from Southern California. You’re out on a trail and you round a corner and you can see what looks like a snake. And it could be real estate, maybe it’s not, but you jump, right? Your body has this massive response to it. It’s keeping you safe, because your brain is tracking what’s happening in my environment. I don’t want to potentially die. So I’m going to react. As opposed to I round a corner and I see a beautiful tree or a beautiful vista or a beautiful flower. I don’t have that kind of reaction. I might want to move towards it, but it’s a very different type of reaction. We have that strong primal response.

So the interesting thing in the real world, real world, we don’t often have to worry about encountering snakes or bears and mountain lions, although you see people doing that when they’re out on trails. But it could be just our interactions in the workplace that are also threatening. And our brain, well, it doesn’t make a difference between a real or perceived threat. And so it will have this very primal response, this fight, flight or freeze response. And so when we think, again, about people who are like, “Hey, there’s the status quo, or there’s the way that we’ve always done things,” and they see this threat coming in of somebody trying to change the system, they’re going to react in that same way.

And in some researchers when they talk about people and the status quo, because people will kind of fight, and they find that people will have this loss aversion where people will go to great lengths to avoid a potential loss, rather than to go to great lengths to pursue a potential gain. You see that a lot in behavioral economic studies. But you also see that when it comes to the status quo, and that there are some studies where they found that individuals, they’ll put more effort into defending their position in defending the status quo than individuals who are challenging the status quo. And so it’s just to be aware of like what we’re kind of working against, and it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But it’s really critical to keep those how we are as humans in mind. And I just want to mention Rachel Klein’s comment amygdala response to the fight and flight has so much to do with our sense of belonging. So before I go on to this other aspect about the messenger, I’d love to invite Dominic to the comment.

[00:36:33] DP: I don’t have much more to say. I think you put your finger really on one of the key issues, which is this aversion, fear of change, often associated with loss. I’m just used to the way things are done. What if it’s different? What if it goes away? What if it’s bad? And we can often fixate too much on that. Sometimes psychologists refer to this more generally as, at least when we’re talking about systems, a system justification. The idea that we have a pretty deep motivation just to hold on to the way that things have been done and the way that our systems work, in large part just due to the uncertainty of how it might be different. Not even necessarily believing it would be worse, just difference itself.

[00:37:11] MS: Just different, right? And then even people who are at a disadvantage in the system can justify a system that keeps them at a disadvantage. There’re some studies that find that when you increase the sense of threat or doom, or like you say, uncertainty, “Whoo! This is going to happen.” And people are like they’re going to hang on to the system as they know it and continue to perpetuate why we need to hold on to the status quo.

[00:37:38] DP: Absolutely. And so if these fear emotions are one of the major reasons we don’t pursue change or averse to it, or we don’t hear about it, what emotions might counter that? And there is really great research coming out fairly recently showing that, for example, feelings of empowerment. So not just the sense that, “Oh, things could be better, but a feeling that I’m excited about change. I feel empowered by change. This is energizing to me,” and sort of flip that around and make people actually much more likely to want to pursue it.

[00:38:05] JS: Yeah, and I was doing some reading on influencing and persuasion and people find when there’s a messaging of somebody saying, “Hey, how about we think about this a different way, or do things a different way?” And when it’s done enthusiastically, then people are more likely to say, “Oh!” listen to that,” and take that in and engage it. Because we’re moving away from fear to impairment, like not only how can I benefit, but, “Oh, I feel like I have almost like autonomy here. Like I’m playing an active role in this change.” I want to call out, having a growth mindset as well of, “This is really tough for me, but I want to go through this change.” I just want to – Just literally the word status and fear of status.

In certain situations, there are people who benefit from a system, right? They are at an advantage. And some are aware that they are at an advantage, and they want to maintain their advantage. And it could be when we talk about equity, when they think, “Wait, other people are going to be getting benefits? Well, that means I’m going to lose my standing. I’m going to lose my status. I’m going to lose whatever it is that they think they have.” And so that can trigger a lot of threat in people because they think there’s going to be a change in their status. And again, Dominic, I’m wondering, how do we create that messaging for people to understand that they’re not going to lose anything? When other people gain, it doesn’t mean they’re going to automatically lose?

[00:39:26] DP: I mean, I think that’s a major challenge, how you help people feel that this isn’t inherently going to be a loss for them. That it’s not as a zero-sum game, right? That somebody else’s gain is not inherently your loss or vice versa. But there’s a lot of work showing that that sense of something’s called precarious privilege, like you’re privileged, but you’re worried about that it’s going to go away and what might happen, can exist in part due to ignorance of reality. We can do a better job educating people that these really are long-term disparities, and that if somebody says you’re privileged, that there’s some truth to that, and also the sense that change doesn’t have to be zero-sum and someone’s gain is not inherently your loss. And let’s figure out a way where we create systemic change where the system works for everybody. So you don’t have to lose but other people are gaining.

[00:40:10] JS: Exactly. You talked about some people having more status to whether or not they would challenge it based on their status. Is it that some people have more of a voice? You mentioned earlier, you’ve been talking about sort of the second aspect of whose voices are heard. So talk to me a little bit – Talk a little bit about that.

[00:40:28] MS: Yeah, thanks. So whose voices are heard? Like everybody can speak up, and hopefully, they will speak up. But sometimes, let’s be real, and especially in organizations, some voices are heard more than others. And last week, if you’re with us, Brad Madson spoke about how studies that show that people high in status, that other people pay more attention to them, what they say. They track them visually. In our ally program at an NLI we talked about how people in disadvantaged positions can face backlash for speaking up. And this is where people in advantage positions really can leverage their advantage positions, because people tend to listen to them more. They’re more likely to be heard. And especially if they’re communicating with those higher up in an organization, they’re going to be more familiar or rather more similar to those higher up in the organization. They might be people who are higher up in the organization. And at NLI we also talk about cognitive biases and how they can get in the way of our decision making. And one of these is called similarity bias, or more specifically, in group bias, where we tend to trust and rely on information more on people who are in our in group. And so again, it’s about how can we leverage allies in particular, leveraging their advantage, because people will listen to them who need to be the ones creating change?

And I just want to highlight, there’s one interesting study that looked at leaders and talking about diversity valuing and behavior. And when ethnic minority and female leaders voiced diversity valuing behavior, they received a lower ratings of perceived competence and lower ratings of performance, whereas white or male leaders received higher ratings of perceived competence and performance when they espoused diversity valuing behavior.

[00:42:11] JS: But what you’re saying still, though, is that allies need to speak up.

[00:42:15] MS: They need to speak up. It’s really important, it’s really powerful. Their voices matter. Everybody’s voices matter. But it’s really important when we know that certain voices are heard more than others. So it’s extremely powerful and critical that they speak up.

[00:42:29] DP: I just add on a little bit of what Michaela was talking about. The research on what makes speaking up more effective, one of the key things that’s highlighted over and over again is the extent to which is perceived as constructive. So groups are much more likely to listen to people when they regard them as constructive that what they’re saying is in the best interests of the group. The person is trying to make us better. This is something that’s useful to know strategically if you’re trying to articulate a divergent viewpoint, or what we should change in this way, is to help people understand why this is good for us. But I think it highlights another really important point, which is the group itself, or the organization, is the members are often thinking about what is good for us, right? Especially if there’s a strong sense of identity. But what happens if change inherently is a loss for somebody, right? That they’re going to have to give up something so that someone else ends up with a better outcome. That is, of course, the reality of a lot of change initiatives. It does require some sacrifice on the part of certain people, and they’re not necessarily going to react that positively to it.

But one critical thing is that the way people think about those outcomes depends on their identity. If you’re only thinking about it through your own personal lens, like how does this affect me as an individual? Then it is going to be a threatening loss-oriented thing. But if people are thinking about it more collectively, like how does this affect us as a whole, and if they’re identified with that collective? Like this is a good thing for us collectively. Then it turns out, and there is good research on this, that even those people who have to incur some personal sacrifice are much more willing to go along with that and feel much less threatened by it. And so it ultimately I think does come back to this sense of, “Are we at identity? Do we have some common sense of purpose that animates us?” And when we feel that something common sense of purpose, it helps us achieve our goals and does increase our willingness to sacrifice even if there’s a personal loss to people of privilege.

[00:44:14] JS: Well, I think that is a wonderful way for us to sort of wrap this up full circle, because that’s really the heart of allyship, that you’re willing to step up, use your privilege in a way that maybe you don’t necessarily gain from, but you help somebody else gain. That’s the heart of allyship.

[00:44:33] MS: And we all gain, right? As human collective, we all gain.


[00:44:38] GB: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our producers are Cliff David, Matt Holidack and Danielle Kirschenblat. Our executive producer is me, Gabriel Berezin. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky and logo design is by Ketch Wehr. We’ll see you next time.


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